IIt was a sweltering afternoon in July when the crowd moved to the small neighborhood of Lakholi in the Indian state of Chhattisgarh and gathered outside Tamesh War Sahu’s house. Sahu, a 55-year-old Home Guard volunteer who had started following Christianity more than five years ago, had never had any problems with his neighbors.
But now, more than 100 people had descended from the surrounding villages and shouted Hindu nationalist slogans outside its front door. Sahu’s son, Moses, who had gone out to investigate the noise, was beaten by the crowd, who then charged inside.
When the men entered the house, they shouted death threats at Sahu’s wife and started tearing up posters with quotes from the Bible on the walls. Bibles were seized from the shelves and carried outside where they were set on fire, sprayed with water and the ashes thrown into the gutter. “We’re going to teach you a lesson,” they heard some people shout. “That’s what you get for forcing people to become Christians.”
Sahu’s family was not the only one attacked that day. Four other local Christian households were also targeted by mobs, led by the Hindu nationalist self-defense group Bajrang Dal, known for its aggressive and uncompromising approach to “defending” Hinduism. “We had never had a problem before, but now our local community has turned on us,” Sahu said.
Since the beginning of the year, there are similar attacks through Chhattisgarh, already the Indian state with the second highest number of incidents against Christians. In some villages Christian churches have been vandalized, in others pastors have been beaten or mistreated. Congregations have been dispersed by crowds and believers hospitalized with injuries. Police are also accused – of making threats against Christians, dragging them to police stations and raiding Sunday prayer services.
The attacks coincided with renewed attention to a long-standing claim by right-wing Hindu groups: that a series of forced conversions are taking place in Chhattisgarh. Such claims have been made by senior officials of the ruling Hindu Nationalist Party Bharatiya Janata (BJP), which rules India but is in opposition to the state government, as well as right-wing vigilante groups. .
Speeches, rallies and press releases in recent months have openly attacked Christian pastors and activists for allegedly converting, by force and coercion, tens of thousands of people from tribal communities and poor Hindu families in the lower castes. They allege they are lured into churches by proselytizing pastors offering cash payments, free medical assistance, and overseas travel, funded by foreign donors.
Dozens of “anti-conversion” rallies have taken place in Chhattisgarh over the past month, along with direct acts of violence. in the Kawardha district.
At the First Church, in the village of Polmi, Pastor Moses Logan was leading the Sunday prayer service when the crowds burst in. Logan’s wife and mother were severely beaten, church curtains ripped, musical instruments shattered, and furniture destroyed. Logan’s clothes were torn when the crowd grabbed him and took him to the local police station, where they unsuccessfully attempted to get a police report against him for performing forced conversions.
As Logan’s car left the police station that night with an escort for security reasons, it was attacked by people waiting outside, who threw rocks and sticks and smashed the screens. -broken.
Hindu nationalist groups have attempted to file dozens of similar police reports against members of the Christian community, and in multiple incidents, crowds have charged police stations in an attempt to force the arrest of pastors.
Senior BJP officials told The Guardian that forced conversions are now at the forefront of their agenda in the state.
“We strongly challenge this issue because it will change the demographics of the country and pose a threat to public order,” said Brijmohan Agrawal, a former BJP minister in Chhattisgarh who spoke at several anti-conversion rallies. . “These conversions are financed from abroad and therefore those who are attracted and converted will also be turned against India. Their patriotism is then called into question.
Yet the Christian community of Chhattisgarh, which according to the latest census numbers around 500,000 people, denies all charges of forced conversion as false and unfounded. Those who spoke to the Guardian said they had no outside funding and were not involved in any active proselytizing, according to state law, although the Bibles are often distributed in rural villages and slums. .
Many members of tribal communities and lower caste families in Chhattisgarh attend religious services and are referred to as “believers” rather than Christians. However, most spoke of having first come to church on their own in search of community or on the recommendation of a friend or neighbor. While dozens of complaints have recently been filed with the police against pastors, no official police report has been filed and no arrests made for lack of evidence.
Chhattisgarh is one of nine Indian states that already have draconian laws regulating religious conversions. Those who wish to change their religion must obtain permission from the local district magistrate, and anyone carrying out forced conversions can be punished with up to three years in prison.
Instead, many in the Christian community claim they have become a political target, claiming conversion claims have been rekindled by the BJP as a way to tarnish the reputation of the Congress party, which runs the government. of the state of Chhattisgarh.
“There has never been any tension between Hindus and Christians before, this is a completely political issue,” said Obed Das, a pastor from Durg district who was recently threatened after being accused of forced conversions.
Amit Sahu, president of the BJP youth wing in Chhattisgarh, claimed tens of thousands of pastors and Christian activists were involved in forced conversions and said the plan was to catch them and “fill the prisons” .
He said that statewide, BJP workers had been instructed to compile lists of Christians they believed to be converting from tribal and Hindu families and to keep them under surveillance. “When our party members are aggressive, then no one can save these pastors,” Sahu said. “We will do everything to save our religion, to save our culture, to save our country.”
The impact on the Christian community has been palpable. Many spoke of being demonized in their own communities and living in fear or in hiding. Those who spoke to the Guardian agreed to do so only in remote locations so as not to be seen. Pastor Ashish Nag of the Good Shepherd Church in Bagbahara, who was among those recently reported to police for forced conversions, said he was told he was now a target.
“I am worried and scared,” Nag said. “I have been told that I am under surveillance from these Hindu groups, and they report my travels and who comes to my church.”
Harish Sahu, 43, pastor of the New Life Fellowship ministry church in Bhatagon, Raipur, filed a police report against seven Bajrang Dal members who attacked him at a police station, and two arrests were made. carried out, but the police are now stationed. outside his church during Sunday service to protect himself.
There are signs that claims of forced conversions are now being echoed by the BJP and right-wing groups in other states such as Uttar Pradesh, Karnataka and Madhya Pradesh.
Some of the threats to Chhattisgarh have come directly from the BJP rather than from marginal groups. In early August, Pastor Benu Mehananda of the Church of God in Shamma, Raipur, was accused by two local BJP leaders of having carried out forced conversions. Standing outside his church, they told him that if he didn’t leave the community, he would end up as Graham Staines, the Australian Christian missionary who was burned alive with his two sons by members of Bajrang Dal in neighboring state of ‘Odisha in 1999.
“The BJP has no problem attracting voters here, so they use the conversion to polarize voters along religious lines,” Mehanada said. “The impact for Christians is terrifying. Some families have stopped coming to my services.
Rishi Mishra, state coordinator for Bajrang Dal, said, “Religious conversion is the biggest issue in Chhattisgarh and the top of our agenda. Until recently, this problem was limited to rural areas and the tribal belt. But lately they have started their work of religious conversions in urban areas in an open and fearless manner. “
Mishra claimed that even when they presented police with evidence and witnesses of forced conversions, the police refused to press charges due to pressure from the ruling Congressional government. He said that Bajrang Dal was also working to convert many believers back to Hinduism and that they had been successful with 15 families so far.
“Bajrang Dal was created to treat things aggressively,” he said. “Anyone who tries to convert Hindus should be afraid of Bajrang Dal. Bajrang Dal was created for this very purpose. “
Mahendra Chhabda, a member of the ruling Congressional government in Chhattisgarh and chairman of the minorities committee, said forced conversions were not a problem in the state. However, he said he had recently met with leaders of the Christian community and advised them to stop handing out Bibles in an attempt to ease tensions.
“The BJP and other groups talk about forced conversions, but I have never been presented with evidence of a single case where someone says they were forced to convert or received benefits to come to church.” , said Chhabda. “All over India, the BJP has targeted Muslims to gain votes. Now in Chhattisgarh they have decided to come for the Christians.
Additional reporting by Mohammad Sartaj Alam